Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, dies at 95


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 11:12 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Teddy Kollek, the six-term mayor of Jerusalem whose vision, grit and charm held together a city fractured by warring faiths and factions, died Tuesday. He was 95.

During nearly three decades in office, Kollek earned a reputation as a master builder, showman and agile political pro. He espoused a vision in which Arabs and Jews could live together, but was resolutely down-to-earth.

Known as "Mr. Jerusalem," Theodor Herzl Kollek told everyone to call him Teddy. His number was in the phone book and he would take his morning stroll through the city — greeting, listening and, of course, arguing with Jerusalemites — without a bodyguard.

"Teddy was Jerusalem and Jerusalem was Teddy," Uri Lupolianski, the Ultra-Orthodox current mayor, said Tuesday.

He was the "mayor of all mayors," said Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York.

The portly Kollek served as mediator-in-chief of a city famous for its feuds, where even a road repair can provoke angry debates between Israelis and Arabs, secular and religious Jews, as well as differing schools of archaeologists.

A committed Zionist and a founder of the Israeli intelligence service, Kollek consolidated Israel's control of east Jerusalem and supported ringing the city with Jewish neighborhoods.

He started the Jerusalem Foundation to raise money for the city, seeking to give it cultural weight to match it's historical importance. The Israel Museum and the Biblical Zoo were among his pet projects.

The Foundation said he died of natural causes Tuesday morning. Flags over City Hall were lowered to half staff.

Though he seemed unpolished and gruff, Kollek was comfortable in the most fashionable circles in Hollywood, New York and Europe, and was close friends with famed violinist Isaac Stern.

For Israel's 30th Independence Day in 1978, Kollek persuaded American soprano Lena Horne and French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal to perform an open-air concert just outside the wall of the Old City.

But Kollek loved street politics as well as high culture, and could sometimes be a hothead. He was known to stop his car and deliver scathing lectures to tourists who picked "my flowers" in one of more than a dozen public parks he built.

Most politicians pander to voters: Kollek sometimes berated them. During his 1983 re-election campaign, he scuffled with 200 ultra-Orthodox Jews who spat on him, called him a Nazi and knocked him to the ground.

Oddly, perhaps, he loved being mayor.

"He had this deep empathy with the individual on the one hand and the ability to contact and meet with world leaders on the other hand," said Alan Freeman, the foundation's vice president. "That made him so special."

Whenever he got the chance, he built things: museums, theaters, gardens, promenades and a sports stadium that bears his name. His impact on modern Jerusalem was so important, he has been called Jerusalem's greatest builder since Herod the Great.

"The name of Kollek will remain forever a part of the Jerusalem scene," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the man who eventually deposed Kollek in the 1993 mayoral race.

"He was a man who knew how to conquer the hearts of people, a fundraiser, maybe the best I've ever met," said former President Yitzhak Navon, a close contemporary of Kollek's. "He knew how to speak to each one in his own language."

He was in many ways an outsider in Jerusalem: a European-born Jew whose Jewish constituency was 70 percent from North Africa or Arab countries. He was a liberal in a bastion of hawks and a secularist in the center of Jewish orthodoxy.

A committed Zionist and a founder of the Israeli intelligence service, he consolidated Israel's control of east Jerusalem and supported ringing the city with Jewish neighborhoods. But he also antagonized some Jewish residents by opposing — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — Jewish settlement in Arab parts of town.

Kollek would dress down reporters and aides in loud tones — only to embrace them and apologize minutes later. Jerusalemites adored him for his wry, self-deprecating wit and joked about his tendency to snooze once he lost interest in a discussion.

When Kollek took office in 1965, Jerusalem was still divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule, with its center a no-man's land of barbed wire and machine-gun posts.

In the 1967 war, Israel seized and annexed the Arab eastern part, and Kollek inherited 70,000 hostile new residents, mired in a stagnant economy.

One of his first tasks was to rip up the concrete dividers and dig up the minefields. Next, he tried to defuse Jewish-Arab tensions — to prevent the kind of sectarian violence that would later strike Beirut, Sarajevo and Baghdad.

To a surprising degree, he succeeded.

"It was a pretty boring affair for the first year," he told the Associated Press in a 1997 interview. "Then after a year, the city was united, and it became the most exciting thing you can imagine."

He preached fairness to the city's Arabs but ensured that Jerusalem remained under Israeli sovereignty. When Palestinians demanded that east Jerusalem become capital of their would-be state, Kollek advocated a limited form of self-rule for east Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem's people of differing faiths, cultures and aspirations must find peaceful ways to live together other than by drawing a line in the sand," Kollek once wrote.

But he presided over the construction of nine Jewish neighborhoods there totaling 160,000 people.

Kollek aides later admitted that during his decades in office, the city's master plan aimed at preserving the population of 28 percent Arabs and 72 percent Jews.

Palestinian schools and neighborhoods also received less funding than those of their Jewish neighbors.

In 2002, after leaving office, Kollek had a change of heart: he called for Israel to hand over parts of the city to Palestinian rule.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a Palestinian intellectual and longtime Jerusalem resident, said Kollek's relations with Jerusalem's Palestinians were complex. But he earned their grudging respect for rising to the challenge of his office.

"Previous mayors were nobody in Jerusalem," Abdul-Hadi said. "They sat around in their offices not knowing what Jerusalem meant. Teddy Kollek knew what Jerusalem meant to the world."

In 1993, Kollek was defeated by Olmert in a campaign that focused on the incumbent's age and health.

Born May 27, 1911, in Hungary and raised in Vienna, Austria, Kollek arrived in Palestine in 1935 and helped smuggle refugees through British blockades. Later, working out of a New York hotel, he smuggled arms from the U.S. to the newborn state of Israel.

He was one of the founders of the Israeli intelligence community, and established Israel's first links with the CIA.

Ben Gurion asked Kollek to run for mayor in 1965, but he initially refused, Navon said. Desperate to change his mind, a trio of future Israeli legends — Navon, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan — cornered him in a Tel Aviv hotel, pressuring him to run.

He wouldn't budge. The next day he suddenly called Navon, saying he had already decided who would be his deputy mayor.

He was "a man of action," Navon said.

Kollek is survived by his widow Tamar, son Amos and daughter Osnat. He is to be buried in a state funeral in Jerusalem on Thursday.

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